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Saturday, Apr 26, 2008


It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.


That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.


While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.


Over the years, some have argued that Gladiator glommed on and stole most of the meaning from this overstuffed production, yet what’s most clear about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it is a movie at odds with itself. On the one hand, director Anthony Mann and his fine group of actors - Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren - do a wonderful job of bringing out the personal interplay and individual strife that would lead to the collapse of the mighty civilization from the inside out. We believe in the dynamic between the cast, and see how the fate of men (and one woman) could lead to the undermining and the misery of half the world. It’s not a new story - absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a nutshell - but Mann does indeed make it come alive.


On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.


Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.


It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.


Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).


Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.


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Friday, Apr 25, 2008


It’s almost impossible to downsize spectacle. Something that plays as awe-inspiring and epic on the big screen loses much of its luster when miniaturized to standard TV specifications. No matter the home theater set-up, the size of the screen or the complexity of the sound system, nothing matches the theatrical experience point by point, 100%. Instead, it can only marginally mimic what the movies do best - stretch the scope of a subject beyond the most tenable elements of the individual imagination. Back in January, the J.J. Abram’s produced Cloverfield used the Japanese giant monster movie formula to tell a personal story on a grand scale. Believe it or not, on DVD, the size of the saga only increases.


Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block.


Much of the original theatrical review of this film applies, even shrunk down to the digital domain. Cloverfield is indeed a great film, a genre-defying marvel that meets or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. In one of those creative, career defining moments, TV director Matt Reeves finds an inventive conceit that makes outrageous events play out as real, while also exploding beyond our comprehension. Via sequences of silent terror, claustrophobic suspense, and moments of big budget action set piecing, we get the completely believable story of post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.

Inspired by Japan’s love of its Kaiju, and the unfathomable horrors of 9/11 - you can’t look at massive debris clouds consuming the streets, or scenes of victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos without being reminded of that fateful day - it’s zeitgeist as a Saturday matinee, a romp through the last 40 years of b-grade schlock given a terrific technological make-over. Many have complained about the handheld ideal, arguing that it seems singularly unreasonable for anyone fleeing for their life to make the viewfinder, not their viability, the main motivation and priority. But thanks to the youth coup concept of YouTube and MySpace, such an event would seem funny if it didn’t feature such an approach. After all, when was the last time you saw a major disaster in perfectly framed and artistically composed shots?


Cloverfield clearly wants to use the unreality of the situation with the nu-reality of the portable camera to mirror this new way of seeing the world. Like the frontline battle footage from Vietnam offered nightly on the evening news during the ‘60s, the notion of being part of the action is intuitively unnerving. We know we’re not supposed to follow Rob and Hud, that Marlena, Jason, and Lily should have run for cover instead of wandering aimlessly within the city. Of course, like all good horror films, our heroes pay for their mistakes. As with all classic movie macabre, the notion that anyone can die at anytime continues to fuel our fear. Reeves and company then magnify this philosophy in a legitimately larger manner - as in any CITY can die at anytime.


Among the final thoughts on this film four months ago was the following statement - “it will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen”. The recent DVD release answers this concern immediately and honestly. Brought down to an average family room’s size, the movie somehow works even better. Of course, those who’ve already experienced the film know the scary movie beats by heart, so some of the initial shock certainly dissipates. But this allows for a more detailed, intimate overview. We can follow the characters’ arcs more easily, discovering unseen nuances that were lost in the bedlam. There are also little moments that take on more meaning, like the post-subway attack when Marlena tries to laugh off her injuries. The F/X also stand out more, the brilliant work done in turning green-screen sets and LA locations into a replica for Manhattan more amazing than ever.


The extras also expand on this stellar work. Reeves, along with producer Abrams and many behind the scene personnel, show us, step by step how a realistic view of a destroyed NYC was built in the computer. One of the most fascinating shots discussed is also the most iconic - the head of the Statue of Liberty traveling through the skyscraper landscape. The reason for the symbol’s use and design was crucial to the film’s success. So was the attitude of the monster. The chief designer of the beast points out that he wanted the creature to act like a newborn, not angry so much as confused and cranky about the violent world it has just arrived in. Oddly enough, there is very little about the viral marketing campaign, or Ethan Haas, or the soft drink Slusho. Perhaps a future release will address these missing elements. 


As a film, there is much more to this movie than CG creatures and convention tweaking. Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the media, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse fixation with images. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and bridges are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming. His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social sentiment that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal viewpoint. This is why, long after the gimmick is gone and the sequel has been set-up, Cloverfield will remain a classic - and rightfully so.


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.


It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan - or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store - and wife - were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.


Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (new to DVD from Image Entertainment and THINKFilm) is kinetic. It is dynamite laced with electricity, a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre - the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.


This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy - a strip mall jewelry store - all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.


Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.


Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.


The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.


And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term - “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” - everyone agrees with the categorization.


It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 


 


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Saturday, Apr 19, 2008


In the world of Hong Kong action films, fights are the fists of fury equivalent to sex scenes. The more accomplished the actors, the “hotter” the performance. In the case of Asian superstar Donnie Yen, his career has been one big collection of kung fu pop shots. However, nothing can prepare you for the hardcore thrills of watching this talented fighter take on The Matrix‘s magnificent Collin Chou in Flash Point. The duo take a standard revenge tale, and with the help of some magnificent mixed martial arts, deliver one of the most amazing confronts ever.


For Det. Sgt. Ma Jun, pre-China Hong Kong is a desperate den of iniquity. Especially troublesome are the Vietnamese gangs trying to control the import/export trade. Among the most notorious are three young brothers lead by the charismatic and deadly Tony. Luckily, the police have someone on the inside. Wilson works as the boys’ right hand hired goon, but when a sting goes wrong, he is revealed to be a traitor. Soon his life, and the life of his girlfriend are in danger. Even worse, Wilson must testify against one of them, and the threats are becoming deadly. It is up to Ma to use his own brand of street justice - and his amazing fighting skills - to bring down the villains once and for all.


At only 86 minutes, Flash Point (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Group, and their impressive Dragon Dynasty label) seems even shorter. That’s because Bio-Zombie/Kill Point director Yip Wai Yun takes this very simple story and strips it back even further. The complicated blurring of legal and moral lines of something like Hard Boiled are rinsed away in favor of the genre’s bare bones - good vs. evil, duty vs. honor. As our hero, Yen is out to get the bad guys…by whatever means necessary. Our criminals are craven, threatening everyone (and their closest relatives) that gets in their way. Once Wilson’s predicament is created, leading to all kinds of fear and retaliation, Yun goes into overdrive. The last 40 minutes are essentially an extended chase culminating with an amazingly brutal one-on-one.


Indeed, in one of those rare instances where a single scene supplants much of the movie that came before, Yen and costar Chou redefine the big screen brawl with their kinetic, intense display. Yun adds some additional spice by slowing the movements down, using his lens to capture punches that land solidly, kicks colliding into torsos with untold power. You really feel the contact here. Even though the various DVD extras explain how hard the scene was to choreograph and create, it still seems all too real. Indeed, on the second disc, Yen and Chou describe how physically grueling and demanding Flash Point was. Nothing was easy, and yet it looks intoxicatingly simply onscreen.


There were other issues involved in the making of this movie, creative controversies that we learn about via the always loquacious guest commentator Bey Logan. He contributes a conversation here with star Yen that really explains the realm of mixed martial arts (the movie reflects Asia’s newfound appreciation of the genre-busting style) and how Flash Point was originally meant as a legitimate sequel to Yun’s S.P.L. Considering the number of known fighters used in the film, it’s amazing this movie hasn’t been more widely championed among aficionados. In fact, after watching this incredible display, it’s not hard to see why MMA is so incredibly popular.


But there is also enough of the standard kung fu stereotypes to keep the purists happy. At the beginning, a scuffle at a driving range substitutes an unusual setting for the same old posturing, and when Wilson’s cover is blown, his escape is rather routine. Yen is clearly the star here, and he gets two major sequences - the finale, and an equally violent food stand free for all. Yet Flash Point also subverts some of our expectations. After subduing his victim, Ma literally beats him to death. A bomb meant for another character takes out an unexpected cast member. There is some incredibly visual flair employed along the way - the aforementioned explosion is rendered in a Fight Club like CGI detail - and it’s always refreshing to see a camera that follows the action, instead of dictating it.


In fact, the DVD makes it very clear that Yun and Yen collaborate very closely on their films. As a direct result, Flash Point is a total reflection of both men’s dynamic - a little flashy, a little old fashioned, and very much geared toward a serious attention to martial arts detail. There’s a small amount of egotism involved, Yen specifically believing in the superiority of his technique and training. Yet when you see the results, when you witness the jaw-dropping speed and skill shown, you don’t really question the arrogance.


While some may find the story slow to start and over before any real depth or personal insight has occurred. Ma can come across as a renegade, the kind of cop that American officials would have chastised, or canned, a long, long time ago. But thanks to the pure kung fu magnetism of the leads, and the way in which director Yun cuts directly to the chaos, Flash Point really delivers. It literally kicks (and punches) the tired Asian crime drama up a few fabulous notches. 



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Friday, Apr 18, 2008


If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.


As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.

Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.


At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.


These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.


From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.


Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.



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